The Niger Delta may be Nigeria’s main oil patch but according to the UN Development Programme, the Delta’s 30 million residents suffer from ‘high unemployment… abject poverty, filth, squalor and endemic conflict’.
In the midst of this deprivation, Stepping Stones Nigeria (SSN) has been helping disadvantaged kids since 2005, focusing mainly on protecting children accused of – wait for it – witchcraft.
Gary Foxcroft, the organization’s programme director, makes a direct link between witchcraft charges and the social and environmental devastation wrought by the oil business in this traditional farming and fishing region.
‘Millions of barrels of oil have been pumped out of the Delta over the past 50 years,’ he says. ‘And in that time there have been numerous spills on the land and in the sea.’ As a result, the crayfish, mollusks and shrimps that people rely on for food have been saturated with poisons. When people eat the seafood many die from unidentifiable diseases that are then attributed to witchcraft.
Misfortune, illness and death are all factors which lead to children in the region being labelled as witches – usually, according to Foxcroft, by those closest to them. Sometimes it’s a parent, sometimes a local pastor who raises the ‘witch’ charge. ‘Somebody may have lost their job, or maybe a parent has died,’ says Foxcroft. As poverty worsens ‘there’s social decay and a social vacuum in which these accusations thrive.’
Sometimes a child may be called a witch because of autism or epilepsy. They are immediately shunned by neighbours who are fearful that they may contaminate the wider community. The children then end up on the streets where they’re vulnerable to trafficking, sexual exploitation and even murder.
SSN has achieved a lot in its short history. In collaboration with the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN), Foxcroft’s group has built school classrooms and a boys’ dormitory block in Akwa Ibom state. They’ve also constructed a shelter for 200 street kids which offers both health services and small plots of land for the children to farm. SSN also liaises with the Nigerian government – at both local and national level – in an attempt to highlight both the plight of Nigeria’s child witches and the high rates of child trafficking.
But Foxcroft and Stepping Stones Nigeria haven’t had it easy. A recent article in a Nigerian news magazine accused the organization of orchestrating a scam – one of many challenges they’ve had to contend with in a region that suffers from endemic government corruption and rapacious foreign corporations.
Foxcroft gives the accusation short shrift, but he is keenly aware of the need to tread carefully in a part of the world which he has taken to his heart.
‘Our plans are to keep focusing on that witchcraft belief system; to work to change and ultimately minimize it, if not to eradicate the abuse of children that takes place because of it. Whether by our television work, radio work, children’s books, banners or billboards, our aim is to get into the minds of people to question that belief.’